The privilege of having a Gran like Baa-Lamb

Art imitated life yesterday when The Archers bade a fond farewell to Phil Archer. I was, in the meantime, attending my Gran’s funeral service. Not many people get into their forties and still have a grandparent around, so I count myself lucky to have had her company for so long. Since her death I have been trying to remember all the fun that we shared rather than mourning her loss. Grandparents have a privileged and uncomplicated relationship with their grandchildren, which is why I get annoyed when I hear of divorcing parents who cut their children off from one or other set of grandparents to maximise the wound they inflict on their ex. Though I know there are lots of grandparents who offer regular childcare, on the whole, grandparents don’t have to be responsible for their grandchildren’s upbringing, they don’t have the daily stress of balancing homelife and work, discipline and reward, household management and homework. Not that they don’t take grand-parenting seriously, but they can share innocent yet illicit pleasures, like eating pudding before main course or playing with water pistols and getting soaked when it’s really not that warm outside. They put a different perspective on the world, not necessarily better, just different – and start an understanding in their grandchildren that old and young, black and white, rich and poor don’t have to see things from the same point of view, just co-exist with jumbled-up harmony and respect.

Since Gran and my Dad were both young parents, she was a very young grandmother, and great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother, taking great pleasure in each new generation that was brought into the family, though she was rather horrified to be called “Grandma” and asked to be known as Barbara. My father refused to allow this, however, and the compromise name Gran-Lamb was coined, though we derived no end of pleasure in calling her Baa-bara Lamb, which she loved too.

Gran lived in Kenya when I was born, so my earliest memories of her were of her visit when I was about six. I’d recently learned to ride a bicycle, but found it impossible to stop without falling off, so I travelled around and around a circular route yelling for help every time I passed my parents’ house. My parents were used to my Matilda-like false alarms and ignored me, so it was Gran who ran after me and brought me to a halt by grabbing the back of the saddle. I daresay I wasn’t that grateful for her help since I fell off and hurt myself anyway. And I shouldn’t have been that surprised that despite her great age (she was about 50) she could still run after me, as she’d been Suffolk sprint champion in her youth. Dad remembers being a small boy and trying to evade punishment by climbing out of his bedroom window and running away – only to be caught by his fleet-footed mother. He also remembers her laughing in the face of the rather pompous vicar who arrived on her doorstep to complain that his choir boys (including Dad) had knocked his hat off  his head with Harvest Festival apples.

Her life was so full of joy and sorrow – she’d married young and had two small boys when her first husband died of cancer at the age of 29, four years after returning home from the war. She found love again and when her second husband suggested moving to New Zealand or Kenya, she left my father in the UK, he was by then a boy apprentice in the RAF, sold her possessions, home and the holiday houses she and Frank owned, and followed him out to Africa with my uncle and aunt in tow. A few years later Frank died, leaving her a widow once more. Feisty, she worked in a garage and a girls’ boarding school and only moved back to the UK in the Seventies when Kenya became too volatile for safety. It meant starting all over again, again, but I don’t remember her once complaining, never reminding me of her hardships if I moaned about my imagined difficulties, which I hope I didn’t, in front of her. I only ever heard her mention the raw hand she had been dealt once, when we were being told of the death of a 60-year-old friend of my then in-laws, who gave us a 15-minute lecture on the unfairness and tragedy of his passing. After listening until she could bear it no longer, Gran reminded them she had lost one husband when she was 29 and had two small boys, and a second when she was 47 and had a teenage daughter who doted on her dad. A deafening silence followed.

She was my slightly dotty, eccentric, outspoken Gran, with whom I shared an affinity and recognition of self. My mother’s parents were far more exotic, in fact, having been brought up in India with a mixture of  Persian, Burmese, Portugese, Scottish, Irish and Dutch blood coursing through their veins. But they weren’t fun like Gran, who was about as English as you could imagine, born and brought up in John Constable’s home village of East Bergholt and spending her young life around Flatford, playing in the Suffolk countryside. My maternal grandparents, who’d divorced at a time when it was taboo, warred all their lives and had a very Victorian sense of right and wrong, of rights and being wronged. Gran had a subversive streak (guess where I get mine from) and she was self-willed to boot, perfectly able to stir up trouble and to put people in their place if they annoyed her, but she was also loved by friends and neighbours, even if she exasperated them sometimes with her stubbornness.

When I had children and moved back to Norfolk, Gran and I really got to know each other as we spent the day together after I’d taken her to do a weekly shop at Sainsbury’s. I realised how much like her I was, where I got my inability to sit still; where I got my penchant for rearranging my furniture at irregular intervals; why I was good at fast sports; why I would start 10 jobs at once and only finish five. She taught me it was fun to jump on the bed with my children, that it wasn’t worth ironing pyjamas when it was sunny outside – so many lessons that I’ll never forget and will pass on to my grandchildren, if I’m lucky enough to have any. I moved away from Norfolk and returned and moved away again – leaving her wondering why everyone she loved left her – though she never said that to me. By way of recompense I used to drive to Norfolk to collect her and she’d stay with me for a week at a time, helping at children’s parties and ensuring the fun didn’t stop – though she did tick off one child very soundly when he caused havoc at a sleepover. And because I loved having her here, I made sure she spent every Christmas with me, making a huge fuss when I was told she was too frail to come in 2008 and insisting we would carry her from car to house and upstairs if necessary. By the end of 2009, she really was too ill to make even the smallest journey and I had to accept she was dying. She had been desperate to come to my marriage – she loved my husband and insisted she was well enough to attend. We raised a toast to her during the speeches and deliberately honeymooned in Norfolk so I could give her my bridal bouquet. I didn’t get to see her again before she died, and though we did speak on the phone, she struggled for breath as the mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos decades before and who-knows-where, finally took her from us.

It was so lovely yesterday to hear other people’s stories about her. Her elderly sister-in-law Shirley wrote to say that she and Great-Uncle Geoff never left her alone in their manicured and well-tended garden when she’d visited because she had a habit of digging up plants she disliked and throwing them behind a shed or wall where they wouldn’t be noticed until it was too late to reinstate and resurrect them; Dad’s cousin remembered “Auntie Barb” and how he had loved visiting her as a small child and how she’d inspired him as an adult to move to Africa; and how she had taken him for a spin in her new Triumph when she’d returned to the UK – travelling the wrong way down the A12 and declaring in her defence that they had changed the roads since she’d been there last. She never did re-pass her English driving test after her temporary one expired.

Gran as a young woman

One of my fondest memories is of her coming down to breakfast on Christmas morning and being given an impromptu six-child standing salute. She thought it was a hoot – they did too, collapsing in fits of giggles. Another is of taking her ten-pin bowling – she whopped us all. The headmaster at the school where she had worked when she moved to England recalled how special she was and wrote to say she’d been well-loved by staff and boys – everyone had a story to tell and remembered the twinkle in her eye and the mischievous grin that would play on her lips when she knew she was being naughty. Her nieces, nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren turned out to pay their last respects; friends of my parents attended too – she’d been a part of their lives as well. She was the last of her six siblings to leave this earth and her passing marks the end of an era for us all.

The fictional Elizabeth Pargeter’s tribute to her father Phil Archer could so very easily have been applied to my Gran. But Gran-Lamb really was a one-off and I’ll miss her enormously.

*[Gt Uncle Geoff told Gt Aunt Shirley on their golden wedding anniversary that he had been a member of the Secret Army during World War II. She asked him why he’d never told her before and he replied: “It was a secret.” What a generation, what a family.]

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson - image by Mark Fairhurst

This article first appeared in Oxfordshire Life in March 2007

He’s the eccentric Conservative Member of Parliament for Henley, lives near Thame and offers odd shopping tips. How much of the real Boris Johnson do we know? Sandra Fraser’s still not sure…

Everyone has an opinion about that Boris Johnson, it seems. Whether it’s the Mummies in the playground – (“He’s rather shorter in real life than he appears on TV, isn’t he?” “Is he very funny?”) – or the school secretary – (“He’s as mad as a box of frogs…”). And this, from a very discerning friend – “He has the kind of looks that make you want to mother him.”

Ah, Boris. All that fluffing and stalling – and so self-effacing when I tell him people warm to him.

“Do they? Well it’s sweet of you to say so… really? Good.”

When he arrives – late – for this interview, he’s immediately invited to choose an on-the-hoof lunch. A pie, suggests his agent, Wayne Lawley, with chips? Mindful, perhaps, of his slip about parents pushing such devil-food through the school railings following Jamie Oliver’s healthy eating campaign, he resists – “A pie – no, no, a pasty perhaps. Not chips. Maybe a tuna sandwich?”

It’s the tuna sandwich that eventually turns up but it sits uneaten as Boris – one feels inclined to be on familiar terms even though his full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – parries my questions and throws himself around in his office chair while we chat over a cup of coffee. One would never have called his predecessor, Michael Heseltine, by his forename. Only Mister was good enough for Tarzan, I remember. But with Boris you can’t help feeling you know the man – that there are no barriers between him and his public.

Why is that?

“I think telly kills it all, people see that we’re all exactly the same,” says this Eton and Oxford-educated man.

It’s certainly a leveller. Who could fail to enjoy Boris’s disconcertion on “Have I got News for You?” at the hands of regular panellists Ian Hislop and Paul Merton. He’s been on the topical quiz show seven times, four times as guest presenter, and taken his chances with fellow Oxfordshire resident Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear. It’s great entertainment. There are websites hailing him, but he’s wise enough to suspect that his fans are equally matched by his detractors.

He’s so obviously intelligent and sharp on the inside – he’s written top-selling history books, one of which was turned into a television series, and was a Classics scholar at Oxford. But there’s his “woolly as a Merino sheep” front when he tousles his hair and throws his arms around for effect to avoid answering a difficult question or passing comment on a subject he’d rather not talk about.

Why does he do that?

“It’s a sheer defence mechanism, obviously. I don’t have the faintest idea what I’m about to say,” he confesses. “So I do burble and bumble, then my mistakes will be less obvious. That’s my calculation. I learnt it at a very early age.”

He trots out a joke about verbal baggage handlers going on strike and rather endearingly claims the House of Commons is a terrifying place to have this happen.

Serious for a moment, he was a King’s Scholar boy at Eton and is now the shadow Higher Education Minister, he talks about the decreasing opportunities for bright-but-poor students who want to go to university. Local schools are a very relevant point to this, he says, opining about good education increasing social justice. Then there’s the topic of so-called “easy” subjects and the lack of “crunchy” subject takers like mathematicians, scientists and English scholars and the lack of male teacher at primary level.

“These are all Conservative ideas. Not everybody in educational establishments will like the sound of this, but I think it’s got to be said,” he says, putting his very blonde head over the parapet, again.

Is he worried he might get into trouble (again) with the Tory Whips over this comment?

“I think it’s probably better for me to say what I think and keep going than to try to constrict it all,” he says, looking to Mr Lawley for affirmation.

He’s lived in Oxfordshire since becoming Henley’s MP, but he reckons his connections with the town go back further. He championed Henley’s tipple Brakspear’s bitter, the beer of choice at his school at Sunday lunchtime, in the Commons early in his Parliamentary career.

To add to his credentials as a “local” he says: “I want you to know, my grandparents met in Oxfordshire, on the playing fields of the Dragon School when they were about nine. My grandmother rugby-tackled my grandfather and knocked him over.”

Which brings up the question of his infamous football skills – or lack of them. Playing in a charity match last year, he rugby-tackled an opposition player to the ground – to the delight of the crowd and subsequent television watchers.

“I don’t have football skills,” he says. “Let’s draw a veil over that.”

So why did he reduce his journalistic commitments in order to become an MP? Seriousness returns to the man whose great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, was the last interior minister of the Imperial Turkish government.

“I didn’t feel quite satisfied with myself endlessly criticising people when I hadn’t offered myself up as a target or tried to do it myself,” he says, then worried he might have offended me, says that journalism is great.

In this mood he considers some of his constituents’ troubles.

“The problems you have to deal with are problems of prosperity, very often, like the excessive cost of housing and overcrowding on the railways because everyone wants to commute.”

He feels very strongly about rural Post Office closures and mentions the local postmistress by first name as he complains about Government policy.

“I’m a free marketeer, I’m not in favour of subsidising loss-making businesses, but there are lots of services that the Post Office could equally offer which it’s not being allowed to offer. Like giving out pensions…” his vehemence tails off as he wonders exactly which services are still in place. But the sentiment is there. Communities need centres and the Post Office is one such.

He’s quite guarded when it comes to talking about his family weekends and confesses he turns off his mobile phone and doesn’t have a landline at his Oxfordshire home.

“I live near Thame and we had a long stretch there over Christmas and it was fantastic,” he says. “I’m a militant supporter of shopping in Thame.”

He offers a playful tip for next year’s Christmas shopping by stating that the best place to get five brilliant presents for people of all ages in the space of five minutes is Autoparts – a tiny shop whose name describes its trade.

His typical weekend involves getting up, buying a paper and some buns, playing with his four children, opening a fete or two and generally pottering around, he says.

But he’s adamant the one family thing he’d never do in Oxfordshire is cycle – which is surprising as he cycles to work at the Commons.

“I don’t think the roads here are safe enough for family cycling. There are not enough decent cycle lanes,” he says seriously. “I couldn’t take my kids out on the roads, it would be madness. London’s safe as houses. I cycle completely without a worry – well, I did hit a French guy in Knightsbridge – he was looking the wrong way.

“We have friends over for drinks…” (not the Gibbs, of BeeGees fame though, he assures me, asking where exactly Robin lives in Thame), “…we do loads of gardening, I’m doing up a shed… it’s that kind of life. I’ve got an airgun. I shoot squirrels, though I haven’t got one yet. I try to hit the rabbits…”

So Boris’s Oxfordshire life – what’s the best thing about it?

He earnestly declares he loves meeting his constituents (I believe him) and enjoys the rush as he views the county through the gorge on the M40 motorway.

But most of all he loves the stars.

“I love being able to walk outside and look at the whole night sky. I grew up on a farm in Somerset and though this isn’t as rural, I love the countryside.”

That Boris Johnson, he may not say all the right things, but there’s no mistaking his heart’s in the right place.

%d bloggers like this: